Gratitude and Addiction Treatment

Gratitude and Addiction Treatment

Gratitude and Addiction

“Alcohol may pick you up a little bit, but it lets you down in a hurry.”

Betty Ford

The American Psychological Association tells us that substance use disorder, more commonly called addiction, is a cluster of physiological, behavioural, and cognitive symptoms associated with the continued use of substances despite substance-related problems, distress, or impairment, such as impaired control and risky use.

Addiction is a state of psychological or physical dependence on the use of drugs or other substances, such as alcohol, or on activities or behaviours, such as sex, exercise, and gambling.

Addiction is an interesting idea as it simultaneously provides relief from distress while causing more distress. The alcoholic who wakes feeling sick and anxious and reaches for a drink hasn’t resolved those feelings, merely delayed them to the following morning.

When this writer was being treated for cancer, it was notable how many people stood outside the cancer ward, next to the no smoking sign having a smoke while the chemo drip in their arm tried to undo the damage of past smoking breaks.

Nobody wants to be an addict. Nobody wants to rack up huge debts to chase gambling losses and one of the traits addicts tend to have is that they push themselves to the margins of society. Most of us simply don’t want to sit in a club or pub while our friend puts hundreds of pounds into a fruit machine or dollars into a poker machine.

The Betty Ford Clinic believes that for people struggling to recover from addiction, family or sexual trauma, or loss and grief, gratitude is the single most important practice that they use to heal each day.

When a person enters ‘early recovery’, as I did when I quit smoking, you quickly learn a lot about yourself and it can be a pretty brutal process. You’ve relied on a substance or behaviour for years or even decades as a psychological prop, a way to cope with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. You discover what happens when you don’t reach for the packet of Marlboro and the lighter, feelings remain until you deal with them in some way.

Researchers have found a number of mental health benefits from gratitude: it can increase happiness; reduce stress, fear and anxiety; motivate; make us more resilient; help us regulate our emotions; and activate reward pathways in the brain.

All these things are useful for the addict in recovery. For example, addictions involve a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine is what provides us with a little internal reward, usually when we do something that promotes our survival. If we eat, for example, or catch an antelope when out hunting with our neolithic friends our brains give us a little taster of dopamine.

Certain other things can also give us that dopamine hit. When we take an alcoholic drink our brain produces dopamine. In someone who may become addicted, that dopamine hit can be many times greater than the natural reward that we are used to. By using gratitude, we can replace the dopamine hit from the cigarette with something more positive.

So we’ve established that gratitude can help an addict to overcome their addiction. It’s not going to be easy and it certainly isn’t something that will magic away years of pain, sadness and wasted opportunity. It is going to help though. So what do practices of gratitude look like?

Well again, according to the Betty Ford Clinic and backed up by a pretty large body of research now, there are five helpful ways to practise gratitude.

The first is pretty simple, write it down, keep a gratitude journal. It needn’t be anything flash, an old A4 notebook or even just a scrap of computer paper will do. Each day write down something you are grateful for. It could be your lunch or perhaps someone said a kind word or helped in a minor way. Maybe you’re looking forward to a small event tomorrow, coffee with a friend, a football match on TV.

The next is to say thank you. Be thankful for the beautiful world around you, the blue skies above, or for the rain that keeps the grass green. A lot of religious people say thank you through prayer but for secularists the practice is just as valid, even just talking to ourselves rather than to a higher power.

Find a creative outlet. This may seem a strange idea in a piece about gratitude but gratitude and the creative process are deeply linked. In psychology there is a test called the Candle Test. In it a participant is given a box of thumbtacks, a candle and a book of matches and are asked to set up the candle in such a way that wax doesn’t drip onto the table. 

The solution to the test is simple: empty out the thumbtacks from the box and use the tacks to attach it to the wall. Then put the candle in the box and light it. The difficulty comes from the fact that we tend to see a box of thumbtacks, not two separate items being a box and some thumbtacks!

A group from Cornell University found that if they simulated gratitude by giving a minor reward before the task was attempted, more people would succeed in completing it than if they did some exercise beforehand. The gratitude stoked their creativity.

The next idea is to try a gratitude swap. You’ll need someone you trust for this and that isn’t always a given unfortunately. You and the other person take turns to say something that they are grateful for. In doing so, you open up a much larger range of things to be grateful for.

The last idea the Betty Ford Clinic has is simply to slow down a bit. Sit outside with your coffee and enjoy the time to be grateful, although this may not be effective if you’re giving thanks for the rain. If you are thanking the rain then maybe run a bath and light a candle instead. Put some music on. Just take a little time to be grateful.

These ideas can work for anyone, not just addicts in recovery or people dealing with trauma. Try it and see what you can improve.

With thanks to The System EnD for the picture